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Monk chat and the pursuit of happiness

Monk chat and the pursuit of happiness

“I’m not religious but if I were then I would be Buddhist”. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone saying this then…well…let’s just say it would be one way to fund my travels! I do get where people are coming from though. Buddhism enjoys a rare position of privilege among world religions; a belief system that seems to be both inoffensive and, in some ways, desirable to a lot of people. For me, however, the interest in Buddhism comes less from a “spiritual” perspective and more from one that relates to my health. As someone who is so often immersed in a fug of depression and anxiety, I’m intrigued by a philosophy that promotes mental well-being. If I could learn to be more zen, could I start to understand what it means to be happy? So when I found myself in Chiang Mai for two weeks, I decided to take advantage of monk chat to see if I could discover the secret to serenity.

What’s monk chat? Well, it’s exactly that – a chat with a monk. I’ve always observed Buddhist monks from a bit of a distance and, to be honest, I suppose I always thought of them of slightly….separate. I guess I figured they were entirely focused on living life on a higher plane and wouldn’t be bothered with us hoi polloi. Yet on my very first day in Chiang Mai, a charming historical town in northern Thailand, I spotted a sign outside one of the many Buddhist temples advertising “monk chat” and was immediately intrigued. Turns out that holding a monk chat is a great way for the younger monks both to learn English and to find out a little bit about life beyond the temple. And for us tourists, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet with a person who is living a completely different life to our own. Surely that’s one of the very best things about travel…

A quick bit of research online told me that the monks at Wat Chedi Luang host monk chats every day from 9am-6pm. As this is one of the largest and most popular temples in town, I figured I should be able to find someone willing to talk to me. When I got there, however, I wasn’t so sure. A number of tables were set up in a shaded courtyard but they were all empty except for one, where a monk was already in the midst of an animated discussion with a bunch of tourists. Not feeling confident enough to join them, I sat awkwardly at an empty table and waited in the hope that a passing monk would take pity on me. Eventually I gave up, wandered around the temple a bit more and when I returned a few more monks had sat down in the designated “monk chat area”. I had been hoping for a one-to-one conversation as I felt a bit shy, but monk chat is a popular pastime in Chiang Mai so you will have to share your monk!

As it happens, sharing your monk is no bad thing because the other people at the table will ask questions that you probably won’t have thought of. And the diversity of nationalities and backgrounds means that the conversation is never going to be dull. Our monk was 23 years old, earnest and quietly spoken but very happy to answer all of our questions, which ranged from “what do you do every day?” to “what does happiness mean?”. He became a monk at the age of 12 – not because of any spiritual calling or because it offered the opportunity for a better education but, as per 12 year olds everywhere, because his friend did it. However, he found that he really enjoys the lifestyle and the sense of contentment that it gives him, despite the 5am starts! Maybe there’s something to be said for not having a lie-in?

I was keen to know if there was some kind of Buddhist secret to a life of contentment – one that didn’t involve getting up at the crack of dawn. As with most things, it’s something that the brain needs a little time to get to grips with. Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent, therefore we should all try to live in the moment. No-one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or even in the next 5 minutes. I could get hit by a bus! So we should live each day like its our last, appreciating what we have in each moment. What’s more, the feeling of true happiness is something that only comes from within us. If we rely on outside influences, such as a flashy car or the approval of others, we risk losing these because…nothing is permanent. We should rely only on ourselves for our own happiness. This all makes perfect sense and sounds simple enough in theory. Remembering to think in this way every day, especially when the chips are down, is where the challenge lies.

To help achieve this, Buddhist monks practise meditation every day. They find that it gives us greater control over both our thoughts and our words. Our monk admitted that he finds meditation hard, even after all these years, which made me feel instantly better about my own perpetually wandering mind. However he believes that, with practice, meditation teaches us how to think first and take our time before saying or doing something that we might regret. The Buddhist secret to happiness is clearly not one that comes easily but takes a little bit of training – just like any other ability.

The rest of our monk chat was spent discussing the day-to-day life of a Buddhist monk. The 5am start leads straight into chanting and meditation. The monks then head into the town to collect alms. As monks are not allowed to have money they are reliant on the kindness of other people. It’s traditional for Buddhists to give alms – or charitable donations of food – to the monks each day as a way of earning “merit”. This helps to bring them one step closer to nirvana or total enlightenment (not the band). Nirvana is a state where nothing exists and where there are no pesky emotions to distract or torment us, only peace and contentment. Which, I have to say, sounds pretty good to me! Once the monks have collected enough, they return to the temple for a shared breakfast together. The rest of the day is spent studying a range of different subjects until 6pm when it’s time for more chanting and meditation. They then have free time before going to bed at around 10pm.

I left the monk chat feeling incredibly uplifted. What our monk had said about happiness really resonated with me and I practically floated away from the table. “I can do this”, I told myself, “I can be all zen and calm and content.” And then, as if to prove that nothing is permanent, it all went horribly wrong. As I lifted my camera to take a photo of the monk chat area, an elderly American man, resplendent in socks and sandals, came barrelling over to me and loudly declared “THAT’S NOT POLITE”. With the wrong end of the stick firmly in place, he then proceeded to berate me about photographing the monks without permission, feeling the need to inform me that “they’re not animals”, in case that much wasn’t already obvious to me. Despite trying to explain what I was doing and why – and telling him that no, I wasn’t actually trying to sneak a stealth photo of a monk – he continued to fulminate at maximum volume, resulting in me feeling utterly riled up for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the next. And also a little bit as I’m writing this several months later. So much for the secret to serenity!

What else to do in Chiang Mai:
Visit the Sunday Night Market for amazing food and local crafts – if you’re not there on a Sunday then there are also little night markets around each of the gates to the old city.
Feed and bathe some elephants. There are trips to several ethical sanctuaries that can be booked from town.
Enjoy a Chang Beer on the roof terrace of John’s Place.
Explore the Nimmanahaeminda area and try the fantastic Lanna food at Tong Tem Toh.
Watch Thai boxing.
Travel up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for views across the town.

Don’t do what I did:
Get into an argument with a stranger in a temple.

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Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

 

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London – ┬ámakes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.